Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Theatre review: The Playboy of the Western World

"What is it she's after sayin'?"

I guess Southwark Playhouse is the sort of theatre actors can't bear to leave - the new show in The Little features Barney McElholm, who was in the cast of the previous show Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, while Ciaran O'Brien, who had a small role in Orson's Shadow in the main house, has moved straight next door to take the title role in JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. The setting is a remote part of County Mayo in the early 1900s, in the small house that serves as the only pub for miles around. It's the sort of isolated spot where the arrival of a newcomer is big news, and Christy Mahon (O'Brien) makes himself particularly popular when he arrives filthy and exhausted, announcing that he's run away from the family farm after murdering his father in the potato field.

Far from condemning him, the locals make him an instant celebrity and the single girls swoon over him, but he only has eyes for the landlord's daughter Pegeen (Sophie Dickson.)

Although the scene changes are soundtracked with modern Irish rock music, Polina Kalinina's production otherwise sticks to an authentically grubby and poverty-stricken aesthetic, the play opening with the cast enthusiastically smearing wet clay onto the back wall (you may not want to sit too close to that, some of it seemed to be splashing onto the audience.) Another attempt at authenticity is in the incredibly strong rural Irish accents being used; it might have been wiser to tone them down a little, as some of the dialogue becomes impenetrable so the play really doesn't let a non-Irish audience in for a while. My ear usually tunes into an accent a few minutes in, and it did so with most of the cast, but with Dickson's Pegeen and Tom Marshall's Micheal I was still only getting about one word in three by the end.

Synge's play is famous for its poetic language, and the dialogue's rhythms help carry it through the more indecipherable parts, so despite the thick accents this is still an enjoyable evening, and I liked it a lot more than the one other time I've seen the play: That was at the Old Vic, with Robert Sheehan as Christy, and although it was a while ago I somehow don't think he could have played him with any doubt that he was actually god's gift. Whereas O'Brien gives the play warmth as the shambolic little man who can't believe his luck when his story turns him into the local sex symbol.

There's also good work from the supporting cast, including a comic turn from Christopher Logan as the rival for Pegeen's affections, and Natalie Radmall-Quirke as the wild-haired Widow Quinn, who becomes something of an accomplice to Christy's exaggerated stories. I think Kalinina's production may have edited the text down - it comes in at 100 minutes and features far fewer repetitions of the title than I remembered - and although the insistence on authentic accents keeps the audience at arm's length at first, this gradually reveals itself as a warm and gently tragicomic tale of a little man trying to invent a new persona for himself, and almost succeeding.

The Playboy of the Western World by JM Synge is booking until the 29th of August at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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